Zechariah is the longest of the “minor” prophets, so called because these 12 books from Hosea to Malachi are so much shorter than those of the “major” prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In some ways, it is a difficult book as well. Jerome, the great church father, in his day called it “the most obscure book” among the Minor Prophets, primarily because of the prophet’s visions that make up the first six chapters. But, obscure or not, it is the most often quoted of all the OT prophets in the passion narratives of the four New Testament Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That is, when Christ’s work comes to its culmination in the final week of his life, it is to Zechariah that the Gospel writers turn to explain what happened and to demonstrate that this too had always been the plan of God for the salvation of his people. The gospel writers’ interest in Zechariah applies in particular to chapters 9-14 of the book and, here in chapter 9, we find the great prophecy of the coming of Israel’s king that, as you know, is fulfilled in the triumphal entry of our Savior into Jerusalem on the Sunday before his crucifixion, the Sunday we are celebrating today as Palm Sunday.
Zechariah wrote soon after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. In fact, Zechariah was a member of one of the priestly families that returned from Babylon to begin life again in Jerusalem. His audience is that first generation of Jews that had returned to the Holy Land. This same Zechariah is mentioned, as you may remember, in the book of Ezra as a contemporary of the prophet Haggai. It was a time of very small things for the Jews. The mighty empire of David and Solomon had been reduced by the judgment of the Lord to little more than Jerusalem and its suburbs and the city itself was a pale shadow of the great capital it had once been. The temple was being rebuilt but it too was an unimpressive substitute for the great building that Solomon had built and the Babylonians had destroyed. The people of God were a small company who lived at the mercy of the greater nations around them; they had enemies more powerful than themselves, and prospects that were hardly impressive.
Into that situation Zechariah preached both repentance and hope. The Jews had to return to a life of faithfulness to the Lord and could do so in hope of eventual triumph, not only for themselves in Jerusalem; not only against their local and contemporary adversaries; but for the kingdom of God in the entire world. The day of the Lord was coming and the promised king and messiah would come and gather the nations to himself in a great age of salvation. The true people of God will carry the future with them?
In that way, of course, Zechariah is like the other OT prophets, speaking both correction and encouragement to his contemporaries and lifting their eyes to the distant future and steeling them for the present struggle by giving them a picture of eventual victory.
In the opening verses of chapter 9 Zechariah described the judgment the Lord would bring against his people’s enemies. As we read in summary in v. 8: “I will defend my house…”
- The next two verses describe the coming of Israel’s Messiah or King, verse nine something of who he will be and what he will be like and verse ten something of what he will achieve. His coming will be the occasion for great joy among the people.
Since the names of towns are feminine in the Hebrew language, and because the Lord is expressing his paternal affection, he addresses Jerusalem as his daughter.
That he is a righteous king means that he will act righteously and ensure that justice is done. No longer will the guilty go unpunished and the innocent suffer. He will be victorious; a statement that suggests that he too has had to do battle with his foes. He must fight but he will be victorious.
The reference to the donkey suggests his humility and the great difference between this king and the other conquerors of human history. You’ll notice in v. 10 that the Lord will take away the chariots and war-horses from his people. They had a misplaced trust in the implements of war. The means of the Messiah’s conquest will not be the weapons of this world. This king will ride not a charger but a donkey. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar never rode donkeys!
Ephraim, of course, by this time does not any longer exist. It was the name often given to the northern kingdom of Israel after civil war divided the nation following the death of Solomon. That northern kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians in the late 8th century B.C. But the prophets often speak of Israel and Judah being joined again in a restored Israel in the future. It is the prophets’ way of speaking of the restored people of God in the distant future.
- The prophets are full of such forecasts of complete victory for the kingdom of God and so is the rest of Zechariah, especially and beautifully in Zechariah 14 where we read of great rivers of the water of life flowing outward from Jerusalem and of the kings of the nations of the earth coming to Jerusalem to worship the Lord.
- Judah’s subjection to others is described metaphorically as her being in a pit; that it is waterless has been interpreted in two different ways. To some the absence of water makes being in the pit a deadly fate. There one must die of thirst. And so God promises to rescue his people from such a situation. To others it means that God’s people will survive their ordeal and not drown. It is interesting that Zechariah’s description is very like that in Gen. 37:24 where we read that the pit in which his brothers dropped Joseph had no water in it. That lack of water made possible his eventual triumph in Egypt. Had the cistern been full of water he would have drowned and that would have been the end of that. So, God’s people may find themselves in a pit, but it will not be full of water.
The basis of their assurance that they would be delivered from their enemies is the blood of the covenant. That phrase occurs in Exodus 24 in regard to the sacrifice by which the covenant with Israel was renewed in Israel’s time. This is the blood of the covenant because this is the shed blood, the sacrificial blood, the sacrificial death that ratifies and guarantees the covenant that God has made with his people, the promise that he would never leave or forsake his chosen people or fail to be their God. Of course, this same phrase occurs in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the night before the Lord’s crucifixion when Jesus speaks of his death and likens the cup of the Lord’s Supper to “the blood of the covenant.”
- They are prisoners – their enemies now have the upper hand – but they have hope and rightly so. “Prisoners of hope” means “prisoners with hope”. In other places the prophets (e.g. Isa. 61:7) promise that the Lord will restore twofold the losses his people have suffered.
- The point is that the Lord, who has forsaken the use of chariots and warhorses is not left without weapons. He is not disarmed. His people will be his weapons. The sense is that Judah is his bow and Ephraim his arrows. He will use them also like a warrior’s sword. The question of interpretation here concerns the reference to Greece. The particular term could be a general reference to the nations (already mentioned in this prophecy) or to the Jew’s victory over one remnant of Alexander the Great’s empire in the mid 2nd century B.C. In the context, something larger than a particular historical battle and particular victory seems more likely.
We have before us the meaning – stated centuries beforehand – of the triumphal entry of Jesus the Christ into Jerusalem that long ago Sunday. We see him described as a king and so he was and so the people confessed him to be, however unwittingly in most cases. But we see him humble, not like a typical earthly king: not astride a war horse but in that almost ridiculous scene balancing himself on a little donkey, his feet nearly touching the ground. He is a king – his works of divine power had proved that, his raising of Lazarus just days before had proved that to the people’s satisfaction – but he was no one’s typical idea of a king. The Jews that Sunday morning hoped that he would lead them in victory against the Romans and restore the kingdom of David to his former glory in the world. In fact, he entered Jerusalem to die, and so shed the blood of the covenant by which alone salvation can come to sinful human beings.
The Jews thought that he was to be their king and theirs alone, but Jesus himself had said that his kingdom would extend to the ends of the earth and that many from the four corners of the world would sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. He had not only the excited multitudes before and around him in his mind but the whole world upon his heart as he rode to his death that long ago Spring Sunday. How often in the Bible we encounter this dramatic disjunction between the natural expectations of human beings and the purposes of God. The reason people do not embrace Jesus as their King is precisely because he is not the sort of king they imagine or want. They want a king of earthly glory and he is not that – at least not yet –; they want a king who brings earthly prosperity and he is not that – at least not yet –; they want a king who will give them great things and not ask great things of them in return and he is not that – he will never be that! They want a king who will exalt them and make them great not a king who will humble them and make them cry out to him in their helplessness and great need.
That great crowd greeting Jesus as he entered Jerusalem hadn’t the faintest inkling – even his friends and disciples hadn’t an inkling – that he would be hung up on a cross five days later and still less did they understand that it was precisely as their king and precisely for their deliverance and for their salvation and for their eternal prosperity that he would die that cruel death. It was no part of their understanding of who a true king is and what a true king does that he gives himself to the cruelest and most shameful death in the place of and for the sake of his people. But it was his blood, his death, not his army, not his sword that would win this great victory and this victory could be won in no other way. You can’t kill sin and guilt with a sword. You can’t satisfy the justice of an offended and holy God with horses and chariots. Only the death of a perfect sacrifice can do that!
It is a jest – a King come riding on a donkey’s foal?
He only mocks at thrones of pomp and great renown.
No more! As written first in ancient scroll,
Through lowliness of heart he gains a crown.
And we have the cosmic consequences of the work of this king also given in biblical prophecy’s typical form. This is the form that goes by the name of the prophetic perspective or prophetic foreshortening. In this way of speaking about the future, as you remember, the future is seen in the vision of a biblical author as a single moment, a unity, which only history reveals to be, in fact, a succession of events, even a succession spread over long periods of time. It has often been illustrated by comparing it to a person who sees a range of mountains in the far distance and sees them from that perspective as a single line of peaks spread across the horizon. Only when he is in and among the mountains, much later, does he realize that large valleys and sometimes considerable distances separate one range from another. Some peaks are many miles closer than others, though it didn’t seem so at first glance from far back on the plains. From there one sees only a single mountain range, not the wide valleys that separate one line of peaks from another.
It is by no means unusual that the Bible speaks this way and no discredit to the authority or accuracy of its prophecy of the future. We talk about the future this way all the time and know exactly what we are doing. We often talk about the past in this same way.
If, for example, I were to say that at the beginning of the 19th century two Englishmen would appear on the stage of world affairs who would stop the advance of Napoleon and crush his empire, I would be stating as a unity a number of quite different events that, in fact, transpired over a number of years. Many battles would be fought, Trafalgar and Waterloo only the greatest and most decisive of them, and I’ve mentioned nothing of that. I have said nothing about the birth, the youth, or the development of the two English heroes, Nelson and Wellington, nor have I said when they would first engage the French fleet or army, I didn’t even mention that one was an admiral and one a general, nor did I state the number of battles that would have to be fought on land and sea or the number of years it would take finally to vanquish the great French emperor. Nor did I mention that between Trafalgar and Waterloo would fall Napoleon’s first defeat, his exile, his return and the hundred days. But, what I said was true, was a fair summary of the history, and, more to the point, the material things that had to be known if only the great and final result was to be stated. Well biblical prophecy is like that over and over again. It is not, frankly, much interested in the details; it cares much more for the great sweeping vision of the future, the way history will turn out in summary. And so that is the way the future is predicted in the Bible. There are a few details, but only a few, enough to prove that God knows those too in advance.
And here we have a classic case of that foreshortening. The coming of the king leads to the destruction of his and our enemies and the triumph of his kingdom in the world. “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth,” an Old Testament way to say that the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, or that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Nothing is said here of the first coming of Jesus Christ being separated from his second by thousands of years. Nothing is said of the Lord’s death and resurrection and ascension to heaven being followed by Pentecost and the gospel mission to the world. We hear of Judah and Ephraim as the Lord’s weapons but we are not told that the war would be fought and the battle won by the progress of the gospel through the nations of the world from mouth to mouth and heart to heart. Nothing is said here about the fact that 2000 years after the Lord Christ entered Jerusalem astride that little donkey the Christian church would still be, at least in many places of the world, prisoners of hope in a waterless pit, waiting for the Lord to restore to her twofold the losses she had suffered in her service of him. The mountain range of final triumph turns out to have been many, many miles behind the mountain range of Christ’s first triumph over sin and death on the cross and in his resurrection. And there is a reason for that, we know: time must be given for the elect to be gathered from the four winds, the nations must be brought to Christ, only then can the end come. This is the mystery of world history: an initial conquest worked out in following years and only then will the end come.
This phenomenon also has a classic illustration, first offered, to my knowledge, by the French Reformed scholar, Oscar Cullmann, in his influential book, Christ and Time, first published a few years after the end of the Second World War. Cullman likened Christ’s victory over sin and death on Good Friday and Easter Sunday to the Allies’ victory at Normandy. Once the allied armies were safely ashore and the buildup of divisions and equipment could proceed unhampered by the enemy, it could be said that the war was won. Many German generals fully understood at the time that the successful Normandy invasion made the allied victory inevitable. But, as it was to turn out, there was a year of hard fighting still to go before Germany capitulated on the battle field. Indeed, most American deaths in the Second World War occurred in Europe after D-Day, after, as it could truthfully be said, the war had been won. Well, so it was with Christ on Easter. The war has been won, the victory achieved. The eventual triumph is now only a matter of time. But there have been centuries of hard fighting still to endure before this war is entirely over. The cross and the empty tomb did not immediately extend the Savior’s rule to the ends of the earth. That has come with time and, indeed, has not yet come: not as it some day shall.
His soldiers used to complain about General Macarthur that he would proclaim to the press a battle won and tell reports that only mopping-up remained to be done, when that “mopping-up” amounted to bitter fighting against an implacable foe that cost as many if not more casualties than the fatal blow struck at the outset of the campaign. Well, Christians know all about mopping-up. They’ve been mopping-up for these past 2000 years and it has been no easy work. The Devil gives ground only by inches and makes us pay dearly for every inch. But, the fatal blow has been struck by our King and Captain and the victory shall be ours because it is already his. That is the point!
We have the world’s history and the history of the kingdom of God from the ministry of Christ to the second coming in these few verses with the all the accent falling, where it belongs, on the certainty of triumph and the inevitability of the Lord’s conquest of all his and our enemies. The accent does not fall on the details, though we do learn along the way of these verses that Christ will not be a king such as we might have expected and that we – Judah and Ephraim – will have some fighting to do ourselves as the Lord uses us to achieve his victories.
Nevertheless, little did those who witnessed Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday morning understand what was to come or what sort of king he would prove to be and how he would conquer our enemies on our behalf. Little did anyone understand what the events of that week would mean for the entire world and how they would spiral outward in their consequence to the ends of the earth and to and beyond the end of time.
Now, let me bring all of this home. Our brother Art Bittner, known to so many of us here, is dying. He is within days of death as he is no longer able to receive nourishment. I was with him Friday and, though his speech is still often incomprehensible as a result of his recent stroke, he can often speak clearly simple words and sentences. We spoke of his impending death. And may I say what a privilege it is for a minister to speak directly and openly about death and dying to his people, not to have to tip-toe around the subject for fear that it would be upsetting to the person or his loved ones. I asked Art if he knew he was dying and he said “Yes.” I asked him if his heart was at peace and he said it was. We spoke of Christ’s conquest of death, we spoke of what Christians always speak of at such times: what it is going to be like in those first few moments after we die, what a glorious world will open to our view when we step into what Samuel Rutherford called “the laughing side of the world.” We spoke of what a wonder it will be to find our hearts sinless and to know we are with the Lord forever. We wondered together how soon he might meet Ken Anderson and David Allison, two of Art’s good friends who have gone before him to heaven.
But I don’t hesitate to tell you that this does not look like victory! You can see Art shriveling away before your eyes but you cannot see Paradise. You can hear Art’s stroke-induced stammering and only sometimes understand him; you have no difficulty seeing the effects of his illness and his stroke, but you cannot see the perfect life that lies a few days ahead of him on the other side. You can see the tears on his face and the face of his dear wife as they contemplate their separation, but you cannot see their reunion
“on Canaan’s happy shore…where partings are no more…[when] eyes with joy shall sparkle, that brimmed with tears of late, orphans no longer fatherless nor widows desolate.”
You could have heard – I’m glad you did not – Pat and Patty and I try to sing “For all the Saints Who from their labors Rest,” – one of Art’s favorite hymns – but you cannot hear the exquisitely beautiful thunder of the heavenly hosts singing their anthems of praise to God and Christ.
Someone might look in on that scene and say that there is nothing there but wishful thinking: a dying man with loved ones who want to believe victory over death lies but days away. But, no, we know that is not wishful thinking and not only for the reason that Zechariah’s faithful contemporaries knew it was not wishful thinking for them to contemplate their eventual vindication in a world of beauty, prosperity and perfect goodness. They knew it must be so for them because God had spoken. The God who cannot lie had spoken through his prophet. We have that reason to be sure that we are on the winning side; reason enough to be sure. God has spoken. But we also have behind us the cosmic D-Day battle, the decisive engagement that was fought and won. Christ dead on the cross and Christ alive again the following Sunday. Our King has already come once; humble, riding on a donkey as a symbol of the way he would save us, by humbling himself to death. He did what he said he would do; he accomplished what he said he would accomplish and was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.
He would not have done that and then not finish his work and complete his victory. Having spent so much for us, he will not fail to claim the prize for us. There are reasons why he waits and why his people must continue to face death, as Art must, and continue to find themselves as Christians do from time to time in the waterless pit, but if there is fighting still to be done and we are his bow and arrows, then let us do our part in the sure and certain hope of victory at last. No one who knows the victory is coming wants that day to come and find him or her without wounds, without scars, without a torn uniform, without some evidence that we have fought our King’s battles and proven ourselves faithful to him.
Whatever that battle may be for us – whether our witness to the unsaved this week, whether Art’s facing death in the faith of Jesus Christ, whether some trouble or affliction we must bear in hope – let us fight it in Jesus’ name as the prisoners of hope that he has made us to be.